Stanford’s interactive Biology Cloud Lab hosts remote-controlled experiments over the Internet
Learning to do science involves more than reading books or peering through microscopes. It means learning how to make and test hypotheses, perform experiments and collect and analyze data.
To help keep cost and logistics from barring students from meaningful science education, Stanford researchers have designed a biology lab that is accessible over the Internet and extremely affordable at scale.
The Biology Cloud Lab is designed by a team led by Ingmar Riedel-Kruse, an assistant professor of bioengineering at Stanford, and Paulo Blikstein, a professor in Stanford’s Graduate School of Education.
It allows large numbers of users to remotely conduct experiments on one-celled organisms over the Internet and to collect, analyze and model the data.
The project comes as education departments in several states begin to adopt the Next Generation Science Standards, new U.S. guidelines for K-12 science education that aim to boost the nation’s scientific literacy.
Blikstein said the Biology Cloud Lab can put many of the most sophisticated aspects of the new science standards within reach of many students for the first time.
As configured in prototype on the Stanford campus, the lab’s experiments involve common pond-dwelling organisms called Euglena that convert light to energy. Students and teachers use remote-control software to manipulate light sources around microfluidic chips full of Euglena communities. As users apply various amounts of light stimuli to attract or repel the Euglena in the Stanford lab, a webcam microscope live-streams the operation back to them.
The key was in developing biotic processing units to hold the organisms and record the data for remote users, and in developing algorithms that would allow many remote users to run experiments over time.
The project has successfully been tested on middle-school students. Built at scale – 250 biotic processing units in one small room – each lab could host 1 million experiments at a cost of one cent each.
“We are doing to biology what Seymour Papert did to computer programming in the 1970s with the Logo language,” Blikstein said.
“The Biology Cloud Lab makes previously impossible activities easy and accessible to kids – and maybe also to professional scientists in the future.”
Learn about the team’s other projects for interactive biotechnology education.